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Sunday 30 March 2014

Free School £45 Million Bingo

Last April, the Daily Mail told readersOne of the country's top schools is planning to open a sixth-form academy which will aim to offer pupils from poor backgrounds a route to Oxford and Cambridge. Westminster School and the Harris Federation have joined forces to open the academy, which will give priority to teenagers entitled to free school meals and to children in care”.
Yes, "Oiky", you're wasting our money. Again

What they did not tell was where the school would be located, nor who was paying. And now that the answers to those questions are known, there has been blowback from the chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee and the teaching unions – because the Harris Westminster Sixth Form will be situated in a former Government building in central London, and we’re paying.

That is because this is a Free School. And setting up in Steel House on Tothill Street – that’s the one running from the south side of Methodist Westminster Hall into Broadway and on into Petty France – means the premises are going to come at a premium price. Westminster School is in the same area? That isn’t a problem – it’s a privately funded business. The new Sixth Form is not.

In fact, as the Independent revealed on Saturday, the setup cost will be an eye-watering £45 million for a school with 500 places, which works out at £90,000 per pupil. That is six times the average cost of setting up a Free School, and the overall cost of that programme, as I noted the other day, has overshot its initial budget by well over a billion notes. The new school will be a seriously expensive one.

And, when many local authority schools are having to accommodate pupils in temporary classrooms – along with the problem of keeping them warm in the winter months – and foregoing maintenance on permanent structures, taxpayers may be forgiven for asking why it is the Government’s business helping Westminster School establish a selective Sixth Form in central London.

The new school seeks to get as many of half its pupils into Russell Group Universities, which is a laudable objective, but one wonders, if the idea is so good and the demand is there, why the sponsors could not have undertaken the project themselves. Margaret Hodge summed it up: “If you really want to get people into Oxford and Cambridge you don't have to give Westminster School £45 million”.

The spokesman defending the new Free School told “It will give hundreds of children from low income families across London the kind of top quality sixth form previously reserved for the better off”. But the question remains: is the cost justified, given constraints on budgets elsewhere? Michael “Oiky” Gove approved the deal, but his usual array of cheerleaders has remained silent.

Otherwise, it’s just another Free School overspend story. One of too many so far.

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